The Man With No Family

Hans Aanki

CAN USE Tilo's story pic

Hans Aanki is an award winning journalist and documentary film maker who describes the trauma and necessity of filming victims of mass violence and his own predicament in these situations. He spoke with Revati Laul and the best excerpts of that conversation are strung together here.

The man in this photo – Abdul Majid is one of the surviving members of a family that was almost entirely wiped out in the anti-Muslim riots of Gujarat, 2002. Whilst his wife and most of his children were killed, one son who stayed with him survived, as did a daughter was married elsewhere. So when the mob attacked their house, Abdul and his son witnessed everything. They saw their family members, including several small children – one of whom was four years old; raped publicly in broad daylight and then burned. He was also attacked with a sabre. But he lay low because he thought he was going to die. His son was also knocked unconscious and set ablaze but he survived.

When I went in to shoot this documentary, from which this still image is extracted; it was a normal town for me. Quite clean in fact, compared with other shanties I’ve been to. Abdul Majid was running a business there and looked pretty upbeat. But as soon as we put to him questions, his eyes would glaze over  and he was looking at nothing. I felt that with every question we asked him, he was re-living his trauma.

His public persona was that of the strong man who survived. We met him during the Eid festival. It was a time of celebration. So he made a huge effort to have the biggest goat and go from house to house, sharing the meat with the community. He really went all out to prove that he was a strong member of the community. For his surviving children he needed to display that he was a strong father. And then, there was the complete opposite part of his identity that was revealed to us when we separated him from the others and sat him down to talk. And he could really reflect on his emotional state. Here he became a completely different person. He shrunk. He had become smaller. Every part of his body communicated to us the fact that he didn’t want to talk about his predicament. But he went ahead with the interview because we spent a lot of time with him, building a relationship of trust. We told him that he was completely in charge. That we would not show anything that he didn’t want. We made him view some of the footage and asked him if it was okay.

Sure, there are moments when you tell yourself that you don’t want to continue this interview. I have a fantastic imagination and that went awry when he just touched upon a couple of subjects. It was the way he spoke. He just about hinted at things and then let the sentence peter out. He spoke in half sentences. The rest was upto us and the translator to fill with our own imagination. Cruel images of how a child gets raped or somebody gets set ablaze who is still alive. In these instances, you realize very quickly that it doesn’t really matter where on the planet you are. When the person has reached his limit, you just do not push further. But equally, when you’re filming someone’s narrative of pain as we were doing, the stronger camera in this case is the camera that stays. Not the camera that further intrudes or the camera that artificially takes itself back. Zooming in is like jumping in the person’s face and zooming out is like leaving a crying child alone in a park.

Of course, you’re constantly asking yourself  – am I overstepping the bounds. There is always this dilemma in such a shoot but then you also ask yourself  what the higher good is here. If the messaging is coming out and if it can be delivered to more people than would normally be reached. And we all want a strong film because a strong film will have strong reactions. Every film ahs an informational aim and an emotional aim. And if both of them meet and interlock, then you are succeeding with telling your story.

When we speak of mass violence, it springs in different places from many different and varied experiences. I’m from a European background with a very violent history. But when it comes to comparisons that are often made between Nazi Germany and the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, structurally, I see huge parallels between what happened in India and the Nazi mobs that attacked Jews. In both cases, the pogroms were politically motivated and the police was withdrawn. In Nazi Germany, Joseph Goebbels said very clearly – ‘Let the anger of the German people vent.’ And I think that was repeated here. So this is a parallel that I would draw.

Speaking of Germany, the small town where I’m from had a concentration camp. Buchenwald. Geographically it was situated right at the top of a hill. So you could see it from the valley of the town. Which meant that nobody could say – we don’t know what happened there. Since that time in the 1930s, so many interesting changes have happened to my home town. When I was 12, the Berlin Wall came down. East and West Germany became one. So I had history lessons in an Eastern bloc country first – the socialist version of events. After the wall came down, I also got the western democratic version of that topic. In the East, survivors of the Holocaust took a solemn oath – there should never be a war that is born of the German soil ever again. So the last school trip that every child from schools in the area took before graduating was based on this concept. They did not go to the beach. They did not go to the mountains. They went to the Buchenwald concentration camp. To see a horror show of a museum including a lampshade made out of tattooed human skin. The intention was to shock. So the message was hammered in hard to these young people, now going out into the world – `this is your guilt.’  Every single time I am there my heart rate just goes down. The last time I was there it had snowed. So there was no sound at all. The only thing you could hear was your inner voice and your own heart beat.

What makes me very happy is that we now have youth that is the third generation from that time and they can integrate this experience with their world. They are so far away from what happened that they can now say to people that visit – `okay, we come from this town that has these beautiful elements, but it also has THAT. And if you come to this town, you should see both.’

There is good and evil fighting in all of us, constantly.

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